ULAN-UDE, Russia (May. 12)
Three years ago, Vladimir, an 18-year-old student from the Siberian city of Ulan-Ude, suddenly found out about his family’s Jewish roots.
“I discovered that my late grandmother on mother’s side was Jewish,” he says. The rest of Vladimir’s family are Buryats.
Now, Vladimir teaches Hebrew in his hometown. Though his family does not share his growing interest in Jewish religion, history and culture, Vladimir says he will go on rediscovering his Jewish roots.
His situation does not appear unique in the mountainous Buryat Republic.
The republic, with a population of 1 million, is an autonomous region inside the Russian Federation, located in southern Siberia along the eastern shore of Lake Baikal.
For most of its history, the region has been under Asian influence, something clearly visible in the facial features of indigenous Buryats. The area is known as the home of the 13th century Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan.
Because of Soviet installations on the Mongolian border, the city was tightly closed to visitors until 1987.
The Buryat Jewish community — one of the most isolated in Russia — numbers about 1,000. Most of them live in the capital of Ulan-Ude, formerly known as Verkhneudinsk, a city of 300,000, located about 3,500 thousand miles east of Moscow.
Dmitriy Madason, a 25-year-old member of Ulan-Ude’s Jewish youth club, says that until the age of 16, he also did not know that his mother was Jewish.
She died when Dmitriy was only 9 years old. His father is Buryat.
Dmitriy cherishes memories of his Jewish grandmother, with whom he spent much time as a child in a tiny Buryat village.
“She never told me anything about Jews, but somehow she conveyed to me a special Jewish spirit, which now means much to me,” he says, explaining his growing interest in Judaism.
Today, most Buryat Jews are second- or third-generation descendants of mixed marriages. Jews intermarried with ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, Tatars and Buryats.
Buryats number some 350,000, the largest ethnic minority in Siberia.
Jews first appeared in the republic, also known as Buryatia, about 200 years ago, as exiles from then-Russian-dominated Poland and the Pale of Settlement.
The most recent wave of Jewish migration to the Lake Baikal area took place on the eve of World War II, when dozens of Jewish families were exiled or evacuated to Buryatia from Eastern Poland and Byelorussia.
However, most of them left Buryatia for other Siberian centers in the late 1950s.
Says 22-year-old Yana Shlenkevich, “I don’t know what the crime of my ancestors was who were exiled from Poland to Buryatia in the 1840s.”
Raisa Kurtik, 75, says that she also does not know any details of her family’s history.
Kurtik has two teen-age grandsons. “One of them considers himself Jewish, another says he does not want to be Jewish,” she says.
Says another Jewish woman in her 70s: “Fifteen years ago, my daughter did not get a promotion at her job because she is Jewish. Then she said she would never marry a Jew and her kids would be non-Jews. Could I blame her for that?”
This vast area was first colonized in the 1600s by Russians in search of wealth, furs and gold.
In 1923, the autonomous republic was created as a part of the Soviet Union. The republic’s economy is based on agriculture, timber and textiles production, fishing, hunting, fur farming, mining and stock raising.
Most of Buryatia’s heavy industry that was introduced in the area during Soviet times has fallen victim to the severe economic crisis the region has been experiencing since the collapse of communism.
Local Jews say Buryats have always been friendly to Jews and other minorities and that the republic has been known for its low level of popular anti- Semitism.
But because of strong official anti-Semitism over the years, the majority of Jews here avoided identifying themselves as Jews and preferred to intermarry.
Shlenkevich, a youth leader in the community, says that many Jews are still trying to conceal their Jewishness.
She believes that the actual number of Jews here is four times larger than the official figure of 1,000.
“Many of them do not even know they are Jewish; others are trying to hide this fact, but a lot will reappear as Jews very soon,” she predicts.
Jewish emigration, as well as organized Jewish life, started in Buryatia just four years ago — later than in most of the former Soviet Union.
Faina Oller is one of five mothers whose children were the first to leave for Israel in 1993 as a part of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s academic program for schoolchildren.
The mothers of the five teen-agers are now the most active members of the community. In 1993, they set up the Ulan-Ude Society for Jewish Culture, the republic’s only recognized Jewish group.
“We got involved in Jewish life only because our sons left for Israel. Our Jewish activities just help us to feel closer to our children there,” says Oller, a single mother whose only child, Dmitriy, has recently finished secondary school in Israel and is planning to join the Israeli army.
Since 1994, about 60 Jews have emigrated annually from Buryatia to Israel. Jewish activists here say the number could increase if more Jews identify themselves as Jews.
“Many Jews here are scared of leaving the country,” says one Jewish man. “We’ve been raised in the Soviet Union where emigration has been looked at simply as betrayal.”
But times are clearly changing for Buryat Jewry.
“I didn’t know we have so many Jews,” says Golda Petrova, 70, looking at the crowd of 400 Jews that packed an Ulan-Ude restaurant for a recent Passover seder organized by the Jewish Agency in Russia.
“We have never had such a big Jewish event, though we have kept most of the Jewish tradition here.”
Another Jewish pensioner says, “It is good that the younger people are coming back to their Jewishness. Probably, many of them will leave.
“But the community will not die out,” he says. “We, the older generation, are staying in Buryatia, which was home for our ancestors over centuries.”